The Poems of Others

What Sparks Poetry is a serialized feature in which we invite poets to explore experiences and ideas that spark new poems.

In the series The Poems of Others, we’ve invited poets to pay homage to a poem that first sparked poetry in them—a poem they read that gave them permission to write poetry or the idea that they might write it—a poem that led them down the path to becoming a poet.

Each essay is accompanied by a writing prompt based on an observation about the poem.

Ilya Kaminsky on Aleksandr Blok’s “[Night, a street, a lamp, a chemist’s shop]”

Aleksandr Blok’s little poem wasn’t the first one I fell in love with, but it was the first poem I read that showed me that poetry isn’t there merely to relay information. The poem is not about the event. It is the event. This poem’s repetitions and syntax enact what it says.

These words by Vi Khi Nao describe the effect: “When used wisely & precisely, the device of repetition has the ability to move text in and out of the future, & from the past into a fluid present. It has the ability to make language time travel through different registers. Repetition can move the text telekinetically.”

Or, per Yanis Ritsos: “A word made fresh by repetition.”

Writing Prompt

Here is how this poem sounds in Russian:

Noch. Ulitsa. Fonar. Upteka.
Besmyslenyi ee tooskyi svet.
Zhivi eche khot chetvert veka–
Vse boodet tak. Iskhoda net.

Umresh—nachnesh opyat snachala,
ee povtoritsya vse kak v star:
Noch, ledyanaya ryab kanala,
Upteka, ulitsa, fonar.

For this exercise: Either a) Use the Dimitri Obolenky’s prose version to come up with your own translation of the piece, or b) Do a homophonic translation, imitating in English the sounds of the Russian, but with a different, perhaps humorous, meaning. Or c) Do a combination of a) and b).

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Ilya Kaminsky

Ilya Kaminsky

Ilya Kaminsky was born in the former Soviet Union and is now an American citizen. He is the author of the poetry collections Dancing in Odessa and Deaf Republic, and coeditor of The Ecco Anthology of International Poetry. He has received a Whiting Award, a Lannan Literary Fellowship, and a Guggenheim Fellowship, and was named a finalist for the Neustadt International Prize for Literature. His work has been translated into more than twenty languages.